Bertrand Poirot-Delpech

Academician of 'Le Monde'
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The Independent Online

Bertrand Poirot-Delpech, journalist and writer: born Paris 10 February 1929; married (one son, two daughters); died Paris 14 November 2006.

For more than 50 years, the critic and novelist Bertrand Poirot-Delpech was on the staff of the daily newspaper Le Monde as legal reporter, theatre critic and, most notably, literary commentator and columnist. From 1986, with his election to the Académie Française, he became "the Academician of Le Monde" and an institution in French cultural life.

He joined the staff of the paper in 1951, at the age of 22, first as higher education correspondent, then, from 1956 to 1959 as the journalist responsible for reporting major court cases: he once remarked that he found these as riveting as Shakespeare's tragedies. He would later revert to the job of court reporter to write books on the trials of the "butcher of Lyons", the Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie (Monsieur Barbie n'a rien à dire - "Monsieur Barbie Has Nothing to Say", 1987), and the wartime collaborator Maurice Papon (Papon, 1998) who was found guilty of complicity in the deportation of French Jews.

Poirot-Delpech came from a family of surgeons, doctors and academics, and attended the Lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris. As a teenager, he was active in the scouting movement and it was a friend from those days, Serge Dalens, who encouraged him to go into journalism and helped to publish his first novel, Portés disparus ("Reported Missing", 1957), which appeared under the pseudonym "Bertrand Mézières".

In the following year, his first novel under his own name, Le Grand Dadais (translated by Cornelia Schaeffer as Fool's Paradise, 1959), won the Prix Interallié and was later adapted for the cinema by Pierre Granier-Deferre (1967). Its oafish, first-person narrator begins the story of his misfortunes with the words "I really enjoyed the Assises": no doubt, the book was partly inspired by Poirot-Delpech's observations in court. The most often quoted line in it, however, is the remark that young people would make fools of themselves less often if only they could be convinced that there was nothing new in what they were doing.

Poirot-Delpech replaced Robert Kemp in 1960 as Le Monde's theatre critic and held this post for the next 12 years, including a stint as president of the Syndicat de la Critique Dramatique and as a member of the reading panel at the Comédie-Française. He also wrote for the stage, and adapted a number of works for cinema and television, including Dostoevsky's story "The Eternal Husband".

In 1972, he moved to the paper's literary section, Le Monde des Livres, where he would remain for the rest of his life, writing book reviews and, from 1989, a wide-ranging weekly column of reflection, comment and criticism. He continued to produce novels, including La Folle de Lithuanie ("The Mad Woman of Lithuania", 1970), which won the Grand Prix du Roman of the Académie Française, and L'Amour de l'humanité ("Love of Mankind", 1994), the story of a teacher who joins a group bringing humanitarian aid to Bosnia.

Among his other works were a fragment of autobiography, Le Couloir du dancing ("The Dance Hall Corridor", 1982), the title of which represented a child's mishearing of "the Dantzig Corridor". He also wrote an attack on the presidency of Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, Tout fout le camp ("It's All Going Down the Drain"), published in 1976 under the pseudonym "Hasard d'Estin". His most enduring legacy, however, consisted in the urbane and stylish weekly columns which expressed the outlook of the moderate intellectual left. A selection was published in book form in 1982 (Feuilletons, 1972-1982).

Poirot-Delpech was elected to the Académie Française in 1986. There were accusations at the time that he had earlier written flattering reviews of books by existing members in order to favour his own chances of election. The truth was, though, that he always preferred to write about what he liked and to share enthusiasms, rather than to attack. The essence of his literary criticism is to be found in the short volume "J'écris Paludes" ("I'm writing Paludes", 2001), in which André Gide's early text Paludes ("Marshland") is the starting-point for a wide-ranging meditation on writers and their work.

Above all, he dedicated himself to the defence of the French language against what he described as le prêt-à-parler - the off-the-peg, ready-made jargon of the media and the corporate boardroom, just as doctors would use Latin in the plays of Molière. This was not precisely an attack on le franglais (though anglicisms make up a good part of le prêt-à-parler), but on a debasement of language, undermining the intellectual tradition that BPD's own work did so much to promote.

Robin Buss